There can't be a Catholic my age in the United States who didn't thrill to Jennifer Jones as Bernadette Soubirous in the film version of Franz Werfel's ''The Song of Bernadette.'' Nor can there be any of us who didn't hate the parish priest, Abbe Peyramale, who wouldn't give Bernadette the time of day, except to demand the name of the ''Lady'' she claimed to have seen. He seemed particularly obnoxious to us when he refused such a trifling request as to build a chapel in the Lady's honor, the request she had made of Bernadette. Why wouldn't we be angry at him? We had seen the appearances and heard the request ourselves, together with Jennifer Jones, courtesy of movie magic.
The first reason I write of Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes is that early editions of Catholic New York appear this week on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Many of us have heard of Lourdes, in the Pyrenees, in France. Even some of us who have been there, however, may be vague about what happened back in 1858 and the years that followed.
By any stretch of common sense, Father Peyramale had it right in being firm with the 14-year-old Bernadette. Two other young girls had been with her when she was sent to gather firewood on the banks of the River Gave, yet only she saw and heard a young lady her own height, indescribably beautiful, who appeared in a white dress with a blue sash, yellow roses on her shoes, rosary hanging from her arm, and who invited Bernadette to pray with her. Church and state were on less than convivial terms. Father Peyramale saw no value in making a fool of himself, less in seeing the Church ridiculed.
Bernadette was not deterred. At the Lady's request she went every day for two weeks to the grotto of the first appearance and several times thereafter, seeing the Lady 18 times, with the first apparition on Feb. 11. It was during the ninth apparition, on Feb. 25, that the Lady asked her to drink from the spring. Bernadette could see no water, but scratched away sand at the back of a cave. Sure enough, a spring, which today produces more than 25,000 gallons of pure, cold water every day.
It was on the very evening of Bernadette's discovery of the stream that one Louis Bouriette, a quarryman, completely and hopelessly blinded by an explosion on the job, sent his daughter to bring him some of the ''Lourdes'' water, to bathe his eyes.
Three days later Louis Bouriette could see perfectly. Lourdes had experienced its first miracle.
It was only after that March 2 cure, that the Lady requested a chapel and, at the insistence of Father Peyramale, gave Bernadette her name, ''I am the Immaculate Conception,'' not ''I am the one who was immaculately conceived, that is, untouched by Original Sin,'' but ''I am the Immaculate Conception.'' Not at all a theological piece of cake for the local bishop, Bertrand Lawrence, of Tarbes. The Lady wasn't making it easy. Nonetheless, he did what any self-respecting bishop would do: appointed a commission of inquiry. The commission inquired for almost four years, and on Jan. 18, 1862, the bishop gave his judgment that the Blessed Mother, Mary Immaculate, had indeed appeared to Bernadette.
Once convinced, Bishop Lawrence didn't hesitate in buying land and building a chapel, ultimately to become the great Basilica of Our Lady, built on top of the grotto where Mary had first appeared to a simple, young girl. Millions have visited since, some seeking physical, some moral or spiritual miracles. Every claim of a medical miracle is studied in detail by unpaid medical doctors, all independent, including visiting physicians who wish to participate. They don't declare miracles. They simply declare that a cure is medically unexplainable. Some 60 plus cures have been certified. Perhaps a far greater number have occurred. Bernadette Soubirous was canonized on Dec. 8, 1933, and her feast day designated as April 16.
In the Jennifer Jones movie, Lourdes was accurately portrayed as a quiet little town. Now, tourists and pilgrims are shocked, rather naively, perhaps, by its commercialism. Isn't it natural that the local folk would want to be able to survive the long, cold winters? And didn't the good Lord make us body and soul, not disembodied spirits? If God is going to touch us at Lourdes medically or morally through Mary, he is going to do so right here in this nitty-gritty old world, with all the honky-tonk.
Which introduces a brief explanation of my second reason for writing of Lourdes. It borders on the impossible to read a newspaper, listen to or watch the news without being drenched in scandal, corruption, infidelity, impurities at their grossest. What a welcome oasis--the simple story of a simple young girl and a beautiful Lady who was conceived without sin. To drink of the cool, pure water of Lourdes even in spirit is to refresh the soul.
I last went to Lourdes in the quiet time, the middle of winter, to accompany a man filled with cancer and hope. It was peaceful as we walked along the River Gave, even more peaceful as I celebrated Mass for him in the chapel of some gracious nuns. We asked Mary at the grotto that he accept whatever came. He died of his cancer, but in wondrous peace, by far the greatest miracle of Lourdes.
Perhaps if enough of us plead hard enough with both Our Lady of Lourdes and the political powers of the world, there will be peace in the Persian Gulf.